Protecting seniors during the pandemic

WavenyWaveny resident Rosamund Harvey Smith gets outside for some fresh air with Stella Clarke, Executive Director of Community Engagement and Volunteering at Waveny LifeCare Network. Photo by Charles Camarda.

Coordinated COVID-19 testing at a Connecticut long-term care complex aims to prevent infection among the elderly and staff.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the people most likely to contract a serious or fatal case of the virus were 65 years of age or older, or those having serious underlying medical conditions. That profile also describes most Americans living in long-term nursing care facilities. And in fact, nationwide, people in nursing homes represent about 15 percent of reported COVID-19 cases, and 38 percent of the fatalities from the virus.

Waveny LifeCare Network is a nonprofit long-term care facility in New Canaan, Conn., in Fairfield County. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Fairfield County is adjacent to New York’s Westchester County, and just across the Sound from Long Island. That proximity has long made New Canaan and other Fairfield towns flourish as prosperous bedroom communities for New York City, but also puts them inside the radius of New York’s high COVID-19 infection-rate zone.

“From early reports on the virus, we knew that our people were vulnerable,” says Kathleen Corbet, who chairs Waveny’s board. “We spent a lot of time asking what we, as a skilled nursing facility, should be doing to protect patients and staff. And early on we recognized that testing for COVID-19 was imperative.”

Waveny encompasses five components: a full skilled nursing center for long-term care and short-term rehabilitation, a memory care facility, independent living for seniors, home-care visiting services, and senior day care. By early March, Corbet says, they had already decided to close down the adult daycare program, which served 20 to 30 local seniors a day, prohibit visitors, and cease their volunteer program.

“We had over 450 volunteers, who besides providing music and art activities and companionship also helped bring our residents from their rooms to the general dining room,” Corbet says. “But once we closed off the congregate dining and the volunteers were no longer physically on our campus, having to serve patients in their rooms meant an added workload for our healthcare workers.”

Corbet joined the Waveny board in 2018 after her term on the New Canaan Town Council ended. Early in the pandemic, Corbet represented Waveny on Zoom calls with state legislators and local leaders to discuss strategies for dealing with the pandemic. “And on one of these calls I heard somebody say, ‘Hey, The Jackson Laboratory is going to start offering testing in their CLIA lab.’”

Corbet also happens to be on the board of trustees of the nonprofit Jackson Laboratory (JAX), which is based in Bar Harbor, Maine. Earlier that day Corbet had seen a note from JAX President and CEO Edison Liu about expanding COVID-19 testing at the JAX Genomic Medicine campus in Farmington, Conn. So Corbet set out to bring JAX testing to Waveny.

By the end of March, Waveny was using JAX tests for patients and residents in the dementia care and full skilled nursing units, starting with those exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Though some patients in the long-term care and memory care areas had contracted COVID-19 and died, others have recovered, and Corbet is convinced that the curve of infection has flattened.

Now all residents and employees are getting swabbed at Waveny, with the swabs being tested by Stamford Hospital. “Having started the process with JAX really gave us a valuable head start,” Corbet says.

Russell Barksdale Jr., president and CEO of Waveny LifeCare Network, poses with Waveny chairwoman Kathleen Corbet. Corbet also serves on the board of The Jackson Laboratory. Photo by Charles Camarda.

Several other long-term care facilities in the state are working with JAX, including Hartford Hospital’s Jefferson House in Newington and the Ashlar Village campus of the Wallingford-based Masonicare complex.

Peter Morris, vice president of residential services and hospitality for Masonicare, says that JAX testing helped them through an emergency situation in early May. “Over the weekend, we received a positive test for one of our memory care residents,” Morris relates, “so we knew we needed to quickly test all 40 of our residents.”

On the Monday, Morris drove to the Connecticut Department of Public Health laboratory in Rocky Hill, Conn., to pick up test kits, which Masonicare’s staff administered to the residents in two hours. “Then I called the JAX CLIA lab and asked if they could stay open late to receive the tests so we wouldn’t have to wait overnight to deliver them. They said yes, and I drove the tests to Farmington.”

The next day, Morris says, the families of our residents were very nervous about the testing results. JAX quickly provided an overview of the testing results — only one individual had tested positive — with full results very soon thereafter. “The families were relieved to have such quick results,” Morris says. “Every single person along the way, at both DPH and JAX, was nothing but perfect.”

In March, Corbet had lost a dear friend to COVID-19. “He was 91, the first person to test positive at Norwalk Hospital, and the first New Canaan resident to die of the virus. And that’s what makes it very real to me,” she says.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Corbet adds, “but fast, accurate testing is the best way we have so far to keep ahead of this virus and keep our community safe. With JAX as our partner, we’re doing everything we can to protect our front-line workers — who are our heroes, no question — and our residents.”

Help for heroes

Coronavirus testing at The Jackson Laboratory helps officials track and prevent transmission of COVID-19. To date, JAX has processed more than one million tests.

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Coronavirus Information

Integral to our mission to improve human health, JAX is committed to helping address the coronavirus pandemic as rapidly as possible.

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Connecting communities

If you’re lucky, your town has a Kathleen Corbet, that longtime resident with financial savvy, great connections and experience with governance, the busy professional who still says yes to serving on town committees and nonprofit boards. After years of working on Wall Street, including as the first female president of Standard & Poor’s, Corbet founded Cross Ridge Capital, LLC, a private investing firm, in 2008.

“One of the first people to call me was my old boss, Brian Wruble,” an investment executive and trustee emeritus of The Jackson Laboratory (JAX). Corbet relates, “Brian said, ‘Gee, I know you have a lot on your plate, but would you be willing to consider coming on the JAX board?’”

Corbet and her husband Randy drove to the JAX headquarters campus in Bar Harbor, Maine. “And we fell in love. I loved the science, loved the mission, and I knew I could bring some financial expertise to the board and the management. But I’ve gained more than I gave—I’ve learned so much about biomedical research throughout my years on the board, and I’m grateful for that opportunity.”